In the course of human life, anniversaries often are opportunities for reflection. For those of us who have been involved in the journey of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, the 10th Anniversary of the seminal document Called to Be Catholic and the launching of the Catholic Common Ground Project (now Initiative) has been an occasion for such reflection. Clearly much has happened both within and without the church over the course of these ten years. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Monsignor Philip J. Murnion, who were so instrumental in the launching of the Initiative, have both passed away. We have celebrated the 40th anniversaries of the promulgation of the many documents that were the fruit of the Second Vatican Council. The church in the United States has been rocked by an unprecedented scandal. Many who were leaders in the church at the launching of the Initiative and in its early days have moved on. A pope has died, and a new supreme pastor has been installed. And the life of the parishes of the United States has continued with people being baptized, educated, married, and buried.
Despite all the change inevitably associated with the passage of time the communio, the communion of faith and charity that is the church in the United States, remains significantly challenged. Much like the society and social order in which it is situated, the church in the U.S. continues to experience a level of tension, if not a fractiousness, that many consider to be inconsistent with the deeply held desire that we all be “one in the Lord.” There also is the reality that some of those who ten years ago expressed their frustration with what Called to Be Catholic described as an environment of “polarization” have become even more disillusioned and now live at the margins of ecclesial life or have left the church altogether. There also is a generation of young people who have little if any memory of the Second Vatican Council and who are bringing fresh questions and concerns to our shared life.
As we have reflected on these changes it is obvious that some of the contextual reasons given for launching the Catholic Common Ground Initiative ten years ago do not exist today. That being said, we continue to believe in the value, even the necessity, of the dialogue envisioned by the Initiative for the church in the United States. We say this first of all because we continue to be convinced that if any organization that brings together diverse people is to survive and flourish it needs a strong and vibrant center, a center that is both a source of enduring stability and the locus that nurtures the creative energy and spirit of reconciliation necessary for an organization to flourish.
As believers, we also know that the common ground for the community of faith that is the church is the Lord Jesus and that our shared faith in Him is the “soul” of our life as a community. Thus it is true to say that the common ground of which we speak is not something created or negotiated, but a living gift that is celebrated and pursued even as we are pursued in our sinfulness and human limitations by our loving God.
To that end we offer these reflections on the first ten years of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.
WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED
Very early on we learned the importance of prayer and community because the Initiative is not merely a “tool” or a set of skills (as important as they might be) but a way of being church. Through prayer we encounter the God whose people we are and we are reminded that this work is not ours, but God’s. Prayer engenders a spirit of humility that provides a much-needed perspective for our deeply held convictions. Informal social interaction levels the playing field and reminds us of the dignity of each participant and of the fact that without a spirit of charity in all of our conversations it is likely that this dignity will be violated.
As we have grown in this awareness, it has become obvious that the most appropriate analogies for our work are models of spiritual discernment. Whereas much spiritual discernment is directed to the pursuit of personal holiness, our discernment is about the holiness of the common life of the community of faith.
A second learning is about the conflict we have experienced. There is within the church in the United States a deep and persistent distrust of persons, motives, and viewpoints. Whereas early on we might have attributed that mistrust to divisions between liberals and conservatives, we have learned of other deep and not-so-deep misunderstandings that exist between many who share our common life: for example, old and young, laity and clergy, rich and poor, academics and bishops. It could be said that the pluralism of our shared life all too often is a source of divisiveness rather than richness.
A third learning has been that what appears to be the source of disagreement might itself be expressive of deeper or unspoken issues. Thus it is that even though some misunderstanding might be clarified through dialogue, the deeper issues might not be resolved. The challenge then becomes how to “get to” the deeper issues in a way that allows us to advance our shared life. This has not proved to be easy. We are not dealing so much with neat theological categories that are subject to nuance and clarification as with deeply held values that in some instances are at the core of an individual’s self-identity as a believer. The search for common ground in the context of divergent, deeply held beliefs remains elusive, but it highlights the importance of understanding the spiritual basis for the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. In a sense, if the Initiative is to be effective, then it must be a journey to a space beyond our personal preferences, to the place where the Lord lives, in order that through this deeper dialogue we can communally discover God’s will.
A fourth learning is that much of the theological discussion we have had has been about ecclesiology and some foundational ecclesiological themes. For example, some speak of the church as leaven in the world and others as a bulwark against the forces of secularism. There are disagreements about the sources and boundaries of authority in the church. And we have learned that underlying some of the discussion of topics such as these is the question of gender.
A final learning has been about dialogue itself. It cannot be an excuse for non-engagement or lack of commitment. Advancing the mission of the church must be a priority despite the presence of disagreement. We also know that dialogue is only one aspect of ecclesial life. Equally important are witness, debate, negotiation, consultation, and decision-making.
WHAT WE ARE GRATEFUL FOR
As we reflect on the last ten years we experience a deep sense of gratitude. First, we are grateful for the vision and courage of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, and the others who founded the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. Because of their deep love of the church, and especially the pastoral life of the church, they refused to accept the status quo of polarization and divisiveness. We are grateful to Msgr. Murnion and the National Pastoral Life Center that have provided a home for the Initiative and more importantly the expertise and labor needed to support its many activities. We also express our gratitude for the affirmation and expressions of support that have come from so many quarters. True to the spirit of the Initiative, we also are grateful to those who have challenged us and differed with us. We know that we are united in our shared love for the church, and we have learned a great deal from their questions and challenges. We are especially grateful for the large number of persons and institutions that have participated in Catholic Common Ground Initiative sponsored activities or who have utilized Initiative resources to advance common ground in their parishes and institutions. Finally, we have been humbled by the realization that many have been sustained in their faith by the fruits of many and diverse efforts that were inspired by the vision and experience of the Initiative. In reflecting on all that has transpired over these ten years, we have concluded that while in its own modest way the Catholic Common Ground Initiative has advanced the life of the church in the United States, our most important contribution has been to offer a vision of a church in which common ground is possible.
OUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
As we plan for the future, we want to affirm our belief in the importance of finding common ground and our role in doing so. While the dimensions of polarization within the church have changed since our founding, the threat of extreme differences has not. It goes to the very center of who we are—whether we are inclusive or exclusive, whether we can move together in the Spirit or be driven apart by views without willingness to dialogue.
Communio implies a desire to unite, even as we debate differences in our search for truth. This is first and foremost a spiritual process, based on prayer and open dialogue. To this end we rededicate the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. Like those who founded the Initiative, we believe our ultimate contribution to the life of the church in the United States will be in the form of an invitation to a way of ecclesial life, rather than in offering programs or methods. As we advance this important witness to a better way of being church, we have adopted a new mission statement and strategic directions.
We reaffirm our mission of discerning Catholic common ground in the interest of the church’s communion and mission, by engaging leaders with different viewpoints in prayer and dialogue. To do this we will
- advocate for dialogue within the church community, building on our learnings from the past ten years, with special focus on the theological underpinnings and spiritual demands of dialogue.
- nurture alliances/collaboration with others who share the mission of advancing dialogue in the church
- promote common ground among church leaders, in the broadest sense, around neuralgic issues.